Ihsahn – Ámr (Candlelight/Spinefarm records)
Anyone naive enough to question whether the fires within Ihsahn’s belly may be starting to quell after a quarter of a century of dining at Black Metal’s top table can sleep easy. The first few combative strokes of opener “Lend Me the Eyes of the Millenia” put any such reservations to bed as the former Emperor frontman begins his latest solo album in discombobulating style in which spat out vocals are layered on top of gyrating synth lines.
Few will be able to hold a candle to the imperious Emperor when the final chapter of black metal is penned in the hopefully distant future. The Norwegians have always been leaders rather than followers and as their figurehead Ihsahn has always been seen as a pioneer of the genre. But since Emperor’s demise in 2001, Ihsahn has forged an equally formidable name for himself under his own skin and Ámr, released via Candlelight/Spinefarm, shows he’s still a powerful force of creativity. His productivity output has remained impressively high over the intervening years and Ámr follows on in style from his 2016 album Arktis in which some material that could be considered as mainstream first filtered through. This record does not so much as skirt with the mainstream as embrace it to the extent that Ámr is really only a ‘metal’ album in certain places, the abrasive opener certainly being one of them. Not that any of that will concern Ihsahn of course who has always confidently walked his own path with barely a discerning glance over the shoulder as to how his work is perceived.
After the electric opener, which includes some scything synth swoops, a pounding groove shifts “Arcana Imperii” into gear, almost in the same disconcerting manner of Meshuggah. Ihsahn’s long-time friend, Opeth guitarist Frederick Åkesson, steps out from the shadow of Mikael Akerfeldt to contribute an inspired guitar solo, as Ihsahn flips between rough-edge growls and rushing melodies.
Another name to figure here is that of Tobias Ørnes Andersen, recruited for drums and percussion duties, leaving Ihsahn to handle the synths that are so influential throughout the album. The overall ambience within the nine tracks of Ámr is a combination of melody and menace although the bearded legend combines more layers than most could conceive to construct songs of remarkable ambition and depth.
“Sámr” is a majestic song, with a sweeping intro that gives way to an introspective softly spoken Ihsahn as the tempo is brought down to a less frenetic pace. ”Reminiscent of Ghost”, this is a wonderfully haunting track, pulsing with melancholy that will certainly speak to a wider audience than those who used to worship at the feet of his Norwegian corpsepaint collective in the 90s. Judging by the promo images, thesedays Ihsahn is happier in a turtleneck and his stylish sweater could potentially give the Scandi woollen industry the best shot in the arm, since Sarah Lund first started wearing her iconic chunky Faroese knitwear in the iconic Scandi-Noir series The Killing. “Marble Soul” sees Ihsahn combine the harmonies with the raspier vocal drags, all competing over a simple yet effective synth rhythm. An acutely angled riff reaches out at the start of “One Less Enemy” before Ihsahn’s deathly growls drags things towards the sonic depths. “Where You Are Lost and I Belong” is another harmonious cleanly sung number, far removed from the murky waters Ihsahn would swim in alongside Samoth when creating timeless black metal masterpieces such as In The Nightside Eclipse, an album Emperor memorably played in full when reforming to headline both Hellfest in France and Bloodstock in the UK three years ago. While initially pumped full of soft melody, Ihsahn cannot resist inserting a few barks into “Twin Black Angels,” although the rousing chorus ventures towards Euro-pop territory while the searing guitar solos also drift off into progressive at times as spiralling contours navigate ever tightening corners.
While the Emperor coat may still be worn by Ihsahn on occasions for live shows, in terms of songwriting it is his new material, performed under his own name that now occupies the greater part of his time. Ámr after all is his seventh solo album set aside just the three studio releases of Emperor. An album worthy of your time, open your hearts to Ámr and prepare to be moved and inspired. A revelation.